Thu. Oct 1st, 2020

Sean McDermott, Mike Tomlin built careers on…

7 min read
Sean McDermott, Mike Tomlin built careers on...

ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — There was perhaps no better day to epitomize the city of Buffalo than Wednesday, just a few days before Sean McDermott‘s Bills travel to Pittsburgh to face Mike Tomlin’s Steelers in a prime-time matchup Sunday with huge playoff implications (8:20 p.m. ET, NBC).

Buffalo absorbed several inches of snow overnight, complete with swirling winds. Yet, inside a large training facility in Orchard Park, a 9-4 team on the cusp of a playoff berth practiced as usual — snow or not.

The Bills have transformed from a perennial bottom-feeding franchise into a contender in three years under McDermott — all built on the idea that if the right type of players showed up, the rest would take care of itself. It’s an idea McDermott learned as a former walk-on (and Tomlin’s teammate) at the College of William & Mary under former coach Jimmye Laycock.

The coach, who retired in 2018 after 39 seasons, believed his job was to help players reach their potential; he will be reminded of his success doing so Sunday night, when at least 50 William & Mary alumni will gather at Heinz Field for Tomlin and McDermott’s big matchup.

For McDermott, Tomlin and their former teammates, playing at William & Mary was a challenge because of the school’s rigorous academic curriculum and Laycock’s demanding standards — standards his pupils now demand in Buffalo and Pittsburgh.

Standards that helped McDermott revive the Bills.

“That’s not an accident that there’s a correlation there,” Laycock said. “That’s the way Sean was brought up and how he handled himself when he was here.”

A resounding message

At the beginning of each season, Laycock asked his players to stand in front of the team and commit to giving their all for the entire season — something he said resonated with his players years after they left.

It did for McDermott and Tomlin, who is arguably Laycock’s most widely-known former player.

An upperclassman during McDermott’s first couple years at William & Mary, Tomlin and McDermott often squared off on the practice field. Tomlin, an all-conference receiver, won his fair share of matchups against his teammates in the secondary — and was never afraid to let them know when he did.

All while McDermott, an all-conference defensive back, quietly took his medicine and learned from it.

“I’m probably not one of the more vocal people around, but I do watch, I do listen and I try to learn from the people I watch,” McDermott said. “Mike was one of the people that I watched and learned a lot from. We had our battles. … I was a walk-on and he was a scholarship athlete — he was established and I was just trying to get a pair of cleats back in the day.”

Said Tomlin: “Sean is a quality guy, always been laser-focused and hard-working. He really hasn’t changed much — I probably have changed more than he has because I was a little bit immature back in the day. I was just trying to have fun, you know?”

Their former Tribe teammate, Jason Steiner, backed Tomlin’s account of his own personality, calling Tomlin an “immediate, likable leader” who brought a high level of energy to the playing field and locker room.

“Some guys will talk trash and they’ll do it in a way that really gets you angry and makes you feel bad,” Steiner said. “[Tomlin] was good at doing it — letting you know he got the better of you — but he’d always do it in a way that didn’t make you feel bad about yourself. It made you laugh.”

A matter of time

Laycock figured McDermott was destined for coaching; Tomlin, not so much. He knew the eventual two-time Super Bowl champion was committed as a player but wasn’t sure if Tomlin would appreciate the all-encompassing lifestyle of a coach.

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